President Donald Trump's legacy will forever be defined by the massive failures he presided over in the final weeks of his presidency. And I'm not just talking about the violent insurrection at the Capitol, or the record-breaking pandemic daily death count of more than 4,000 lives.
It’s one of the most significant failures of his administration's entire anti-climate agenda — and the first significant win of 2021 for the global climate movement.
I'm also talking about Trump's failure to sell off one of America's last untouched swaths of wilderness to fossil fuel companies. It’s one of the most significant failures of his administration's entire anti-climate agenda — and the first significant win of 2021 for the global climate movement.
It was an easy story to miss in last week’s chaos. On Jan. 6, after four years of fighting tooth and nail to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, the Trump administration held its first lease sale. This was a moment many Republicans had been waiting for for decades, where big moneyed oil companies could start bidding for the rights to that sweet, liquid, climate-destroying gold.
But after all that waiting, only two very small oil companies showed up. Industry expert Larry Persily told NPR it was “a bust.” The director of the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign, Desirée Sorenson-Groves, called it “a joke.”
The pandemic-driven global recession is one reason this happened. But another reason, as NPR notes, was “an aggressive pressure campaign against leasing by drilling opponents.”
The win on Jan. 6 was just another notch in the extremely long belt of successes for fossil fuel divestment activists — as well as proof that, if climate activists want to be successful in 2021, their focus should be to crush the business of climate destruction.
Trump’s attempts to stop the movement were slippery Band-Aids at best, as you can see just from a sampling of victories around the world from 2020.
The fossil fuel divestment movement operates on a simple principle: that “money is the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns.” To smother the flame, divestment activists seek to pressure individuals, organizations and institutions to pull their investments in the coal, oil and gas industries, not just because these industries are immoral, but because they are bad investments.
The pandemic made this argument even more powerful. As oil prices collapsed and stocks tanked, not even the fossil fuel-loving Trump administration could stop huge financial players from throwing in the oily rag.
That’s not to say Trump didn’t try; over the course of last year his administration proposed multiple rules making it harder to shun fossil fuel investments, and pledged more than $200 billion in Covid-19 recovery funds to fossil fuels in response to the success of the divestment movement.
But Trump’s attempts to stop the movement were slippery Band-Aids at best, as you can see just from a sampling of victories around the world from 2020:
New York state pledged to divest its $226 billion pension fund. On Dec. 9, The New York Times reported that “one of the world’s largest and most influential investors, will drop many of its fossil fuel stocks in the next five years and sell its shares in other companies that contribute to global warming by 2040.” It said the decision “could accelerate a broader shift in global markets away from oil and gas companies.”
The day after New York’s pledge, Sweden’s pension fund AP2 — worth roughly $43 billion — made a similar announcement. “The fund does not invest in companies that generate more than 1 per cent of their turnover from coal, more than 10 per cent of their turnover from oil, and more than 50 per cent of their turnover from gas,” the announcement read. “In principle, this excludes the entire energy sector.”
All six major U.S. banks said no to Arctic drilling. In November, Bank of America announced it would not provide fossil fuel companies with funding for drilling projects in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, making it the sixth and final major U.S. bank to do so. Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Chase and Citigroup all have similar policies, some of which were also announced in 2020.
Cambridge University’s $4.5 billion endowment said bye to fossil fuels. In October, the university announced it would divest by 2030, thereby getting rid of $129 million in investments.
New York City, London and 10 other big cities holding more than $295 billion in combined assets pledged to divest. In September, a group of 12 major cities signed a pledge to divest from coal, oil and gas.
The U.K.’s biggest pension fund kicked some fossil fuels to the curb. In July, the National Employment Savings Trust announced it would ban investment in coal, tar sands and Arctic drilling, and invest more money in renewable energy.
The University of California became the nation’s largest university to fully divest from fossil fuels. In May, the University of California announced it had finished the process of divesting completely from fossil fuels, a $126 billion transformation. That same month, Cornell University voted to prohibit new fossil investments in its $9.6 billion endowment.
In April, Oxford University said it would do a climate cleanse of its $3.7 billion endowment. In March, the U.K. Parliament pension fund slashed its investments in fossil fuels. In February, Europe’s fourth-largest pension fund — Denmark’s $133 billion ATP — said it would no longer invest in fossil fuels.
And last January, BlackRock, the world's largest money-management firm, said it would move away from fossil fuels. BlackRock’s CEO Larry Fink said in his letter to investors that climate change has now put us “on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.”
More than 1,300 institutions representing more than $14 trillion in assets have pledged to fully or partially divest from fossil fuels in the last decade or so.
But even that represents only a small portion of the money still fueling the climate crisis. To be truly successful, the divestment movement will need to go even harder in 2021, targeting not just entities that invest directly in fossil fuels — like banks, universities and pension funds — but corporations that profit from working with fossil fuel companies, like tech firms, PR firms and marketing agencies.
There is, in other words, a lot of work still left to do. But the fact that the divestment movement was able to achieve so much during a global pandemic and a climate-hostile administration — while helping prevent one of the worst potential climate outcomes of Trump’s presidency — is a powerful signal of its effectiveness.
If you’re looking for a place to channel your climate rage and anxiety in 2021, keep that signal in mind. Because the climate crisis is accelerating, and time is of the essence. The most successful climate activism of 2020 showed us that money doesn’t just talk; it listens. And when enough people are shouting, it walks.